German journalists freed by Iran arrive in Berlin

Sunday, February 20, 2011

BERLIN/TEHRAN - Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle arrived back in Germany Sunday with two journalists released by Iran after more than four months in custody, the ministry said.

A spokesman confirmed that the government plane carrying Marcus Hellwig and Jens Koch of Bild am Sonntag newspaper had landed at Berlin-Tegel airport Sunday morning.

The reporters were detained Oct 10 in the northwestern city of Tabriz after entering Iran on tourist visas and allegedly conducting interviews.

They had intended to interview the son and lawyer of Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani, who is in jail on charges of adultery and involvement in the murder of her husband.

Westerwelle met with senior Iranian officials including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and thanked his counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi for his efforts to release the two men.

The men were fined 500 million rials ($48,400) instead of being given a prison sentence, the ISNA news agency reported.

The minister thanked everyone who had helped find a resolution “to the case of the two German citizens”.

But the Berlin-based branch of the National Council of Resistance of Iran condemned Westerwelle’s trip to Tehran just days after the “bloody crackdown of the Iranian protesters” that led to the death of two people.

Westerwelle’s meetings with Ahmadinejad and the joint press conference with Iran’s foreign minister only emboldened “the regime to further suppress Iranian people”, the group said in an e-mailed statement.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel greeted the news of the release with relief.

“I am very happy that Marcus Hellwig and Jens Koch are finally able to return to Germany as free people,” Merkel told Bild am Sonntag.

“I hope that they recover quickly - physically and psychologically - and overcome the hard events of the last months. My thoughts are with their families, for whom a difficult time of uncertainty has ended,” she was quoted as saying.

The release of the two journalists coincided with Germany’s top film award, the Berlinale’s prestigious Golden Bear, being awarded to Iranian director Asghar Farhadi.

The repression of Iranian filmmakers has made Tehran the target of the world’s major film festivals. One key focus of this year’s Berlinale was to screen movies by renowned Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who is serving a six-year prison sentence for allegedly working against Iran’s ruling system.

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